Critical Theory from the Global South: New Perspectives from Beirut (Sami Khatib)

In recent years, there has been a new interest in research and education in Critical Theory in and from the Global South. At a time when the notion of critique came under attack in Western academia (Anker/Felski 2017; Asad et al. 2009, Latour 2004), be it for its European Enlightenment legacy, anthropocentric agency or its turn towards a neoliberal logic of self-improvement and self-care, the perspective and scope of Critical Theory has broadened. Its globalization points beyond the binary of Western/non-Western thought.

Today, Critical Theory has become global brand name, covering various trends and (sub)disciplines within the arts and humanities. In a more specific sense, Critical Theory functions as an umbrella term for interdisciplinary schools of modern continental thought, engaging with or departing from the three “critical” discourses of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. According to the latter tradition, be it “Frankfurt School” or otherwise, Critical Theory designates a self-reflexive mode of research, inquiry and writing which differs from applied ‘positive sciences’. That is to say, the subject of Critical Theory takes part in the constitution of his or her object of critique and, hence, the differential relation of method and subject matter are dialectically mediated by each other.

The globalization of Critical Theory as theory, practice and stance puts the concepts of critique, criticism, subjectivity and universalism to the test: what is “western” cannot be reduced to a culturalist question. Of course, capitalism, modernity and the ‘age of critique’ share a common history, famously exposed in Michel Foucault’s comment (1978) on Kant's notion of enlightenment (1784). As a relational concept, critique is tied to whom it is addressed. By criticizing power in the name of truth, knowledge, power and the historical modes of knowing are inextricably linked. From this perspective critique is implied in, complicit with and opposed to modernity’s colonial, imperialist and capitalist legacies and actualities. Critique, however, is not an exclusively Western term. As scholars like Jeffrey Sacks (2007) have shown, the practice of critique and criticism, along with related semantic fields, has its roots in Greek (krinein) as well as in Arabic (naqd). The translatability of critique and its different historical trajectories raise the question of the (cultural, linguistic, religious) limits of critique and point to different notions of universalism (Chibber 2013). Seen from this perspective, also Chakrabarty’s epistemo-political project of Provincializing Europe (2000) could be theorized as a counterintuitive proof of the universal(izable) thrust of critique.

During my research period at the OIB, I intend to continue, deepen and expand my research network in Beirut, and to contribute to making Beirut, despite its politically and economically precarious present, a research hub for practices of Critical Theory from the Global South and the MENA region. Since Lebanon’s independence in 1943, Beirut has a rich and contested history as a capital and site of critique, be it as social practice or political movement, from the 17 October Revolution in 2019 to the Palestinian revolutions of the 1970s and the class struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. This written, unwritten and repressed history informs and destabilizes the coordinates of my research on Critical Theory in and from Beirut.

Author: Sami Khatib